Next practices, not best practices!

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Photo attribution: Flickr user heygabe

Best Practices look backward, providing advice that worked in the past; Next Practices focus on what to do in the time ahead.
The Internet Time Alliance

I always felt irritated, but never knew why, when I heard someone talk about best practices as the business processes we should strive for. Reading the excerpt quoted above, taken from the Working Smarter Glossary of the Internet Time Alliance led to an aha! moment.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with learning about and comparing different approaches to solving problems or satisfying business requirements. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel or repeat mistakes that others have made.

But when we limit ourselves to the best that others are doing, two things happen.

First, we blind ourselves to the reality that our world is constantly changing, that the best practices of today may become quickly obsolete. As examples, we only need look at how the music & publishing industries continue to cling to outmoded business models as digital distribution becomes commonplace.

And second, we don’t think about next practices: ways we might come up with something better. Example? Unlike the rest of the airline industry, Southwest Airlines has been profitable for 37 consecutive years, not by implementing well-established best practices of the fiercely competitive air transportation business but by introducing new ways (flying out of smaller airports, standardizing airline fleets, employee profit-sharing etc.) to satisfy customers and grow their market.

Learning about best practices is fine for novices who need to get up to speed on what an industry currently does. And implementing next practices can be scary, because they may require us to do things that we, and perhaps no one else, have ever done before.

But, if we restrict ourselves to best practices, then at best we’ll maintain the status quo, with the ever-present danger that at any time a competitor could make our industry’s best practices second best. Instead, focus on next practices. Doing this allows us to be open to reinventing our work, leading us to the potential of a profitable (and interesting) future.